January 9, 2013

6 reasons your nonprofit should be a Big Listener

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Photo courtesy of CarbonNYC via Creative Commons

How Big Listening can help your organization improve

Target audience: Nonprofits, cause organizations and advocates, foundations, NGOs, social enterprises, businesses, educators, journalists, monitoring services.

Guest post by Rachel Weidinger

I started Upwell from the premise that it might be possible to do really Big Listening with social media. Listening beyond a brand, a program or a campaign. My curiosity drove me to investigate:

● Can we listen to the tides of Internet conversation on an issue, and learn to predict and ‘surf’ them?

● Can we use the momentum of focused attention to raise an issue above the noise?

Upwell is a pilot project, testing the waters to transform the ocean conversation. Our team sifts through the vast amount of real-time online content about the ocean and amplifies it. The mission of Upwell is to condition the climate for change in marine conservation, and prepare people to take action.

After six months of trying and testing – and learning some hard lessons – Upwell has found a way to do Big Listening online, mostly using Radian6. Even better, we discovered that we can use this practice to both inform and measure campaigns.

“Big Listening is taking all the conversations that are going on online and trying to find pockets; in our case, ocean issues like MPAs (marine protected areas), overfishing, sustainable seafood, whales, bluefin tuna, ocean acidification, sharks and shark finning,” explains Matt Fitzgerald, Upwell’s curator and social metrics manager. “We’re listening for those conversations, and trying to meet those people where they are, rather than going out and saying, ‘This is the exact demographic profile of the person who we want to reach.’”

The core value of Big Listening is that it is important listen to each other at scale, and as individuals. Public opinion polls provide some types of insight, but take time and money. Big Listening is fast and shows changes over time.

Here’s the rundown of why your nonprofit should be a big listener:

Big Listening is the future of issue communications

1As technology costs drop and communications move online, the future of our work lies in Big Listening.

“Big Listening helps you to better identify opportunities,” says Ray Dearborn, Upwell’s senior curator and campaign strategist. “You can see conversations start to bubble up. If you jump in quickly enough, you can have a huge impact on what happens to those conversations.”

When we jump in, we can immediately assess our impact. The team at Upwell expends significant time and energy paying attention to the shifting target of what’s really going on with an issue.

“For the first time, we can really watch conversations develop, and watch the effects of campaigns that are being launched, in real or close to real time”

“For the first time, we can really watch conversations develop, and watch the effects of campaigns that are being launched, in real, or close to real, time,” says Matt.

The tools we use to do this work are not immediately obvious. We primarily use Radian6, an enterprise-level social media platform most often used to monitor brands and products. We’re repurposing a commercial tool to monitor an issue, but using it in a very different way.

“Big Listening is actually harder than what major multinational companies are doing with their brand monitoring because conversations around issues and movements are constantly evolving,” explains Matt. “One day you can be talking about ‘hydraulic fracturing,’ the next day you’re talking about ‘fracking,’ and then the next day someone comes up with a new, more punchy word for it. Listening to that is very different than just plugging your organization’s name and the most common misspellings into one of these tools and watching the graphs move. With Big Listening the contours and locations of these conversations are constantly changing, so you have to pay attention.”

Big Listening gives you extra whomp to compete with the big guys

2The Big Listening approach allows you to identify more collaborators. It also helps illustrate that the orgs who you think of as competitors for funding are actually great collaborators on campaigns. For example, redundancy of messaging across many campaigns at many orgs can create a helpful sort of messaging resiliency. The insight gained from Big Listening isn’t a super power exactly, but some days it sure feels like it.

“It makes you more effective,” says Matt. “For nonprofits, and especially advocacy groups, the other side almost always has more resources. Big Listening allows you to work more effectively by identifying ways in which less work can have more impact.”

Big Listening gives you perspective on your impact

3As nonprofit communications professionals, it can feel impossible to measure some of our most vital impacts.  Is there more or less love for the ocean than last week?

Will hunger ever gain Bieber-like prominence? Are people more compassionate to animals, more generous towards the homeless? Campaigning with Big Listening allows you to measure the impacts of your campaigns in real time. You’re able to learn a lot between your morning meeting and the end of the work day, and you’re ready to put what you learned into practice right away.

“In terms of thinking about strategy, it’s really grounding because it gives you an opportunity to see that the front page of The New York Times isn’t the world,” Ray observes. “If you’re doing Big Listening, you can understand that conversations are not just around one hub. They travel, they morph, they move into different platforms. If you forget to do Big Listening, you can really narrow your opportunity lens. Big Listening is grounding in that, if there’s a bad news story, you can see that it’s not as big as you thought it would be. If there is a good news story, you can see that a really motivated group of individuals can make it spread.”

Big Listening helps illustrate the danger of working alone, and the benefit of thinking of your work in a network context. With real-time insight into how a few influential evangelists can push a conversation to prominence, Big Listening helps my team stay hopeful as we work on the crisis the ocean faces.

Big Listening helps you select the right campaign targets

4The first week I started using Radian6 I decided I needed a bigger monitor. A much bigger monitor.  I thought “I need a bigger window into the Internet.  This one is too tiny.”

In the same way, Big Listening has forced us to see when we’re putting big effort into a tiny online conversation. And when modest effort can reshape a comparatively more massive conversation.

“We can compare the size of conversations quantitatively, as opposed to just going on our hunches. We originally started campaigning on marine protected areas, but then we realized that the conversation was really small in comparison to some other issues,” Matt says. “We still monitor the topic, but we realized that for the impact that we’re trying to have [raise the entire online ocean conversation], we need to work on a bigger conversation.”

Big Listening helps you identify which angle has the best ROI

5Ray explains why Upwell chose to focus two weeks of Upwell’s campaigning on Shark Week. “We were able to identify an opportunity there because of the tools we have, and because we were able to compare it, we were able to understand what a huge opportunity it was. We were able to see the scale of it as compared to other things, like marine protected areas. That opportunity could have gotten lost if we didn’t have the tools to understand the scale and the sentiment.”

Big Listening helps you fail faster and learn more quickly

6At Upwell, we’ve all had to learn to campaign a new way.  Each new staffer is challenged to run 8-10 campaigns that are small enough to be completed in a week, but still have big impact.  Campaigning fast and with Big Listening demands new habits, and has big rewards.

“You can stop doing things that don’t work,” Matt says. Traditionally, people will roll out a communications plan, and there is at least a month building it up, and then the plan is for at least three months, and maybe up to a year. Once a campaign is running, resources have already been committed to very specific things.” 

He explains, “Big Listening gives you the freedom to change the plan, and react to developments. We talk about the freedom to fail a lot. Failure can be much more informative if you can then act on what you learn from it. A shorter cycle. If it doesn’t take you six months, or nine months to realize that what you’re doing hasn’t worked, and it takes you a day, or a week, you can be a lot more nimble.”

Why you should be doing it, too

Big Listening has given the ocean a huge competitive advantage. I’m hopeful that more accessible tools will be created so that more people can practice Big Listening, and have the opportunity to powerfully transform the issues we dedicate our work days (and our lives) to. We have the chance to listen to our fellow humans at a new scale. At Upwell, we  use the insight gained from Big Listening to craft measurable impacts on ocean issues, and we’re confident that it’s possible with other issues, too.

Rachel Weidinger is the director of Upwell, a nonprofit PR agency with one client – the ocean. You can see their work on the Tide Report or follow them on Twitter at @upwell_us to stay up to speed. This article originally appeared at Beth’s Blog.

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